Mathematicians Bring Numbers to the Gun Debate

    July 29, 2013

The elementary school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut last December put gun control back in the American political spotlight. Since that time, passionate people on both sides of the gun debate have been arguing the merits of stricter gun laws. Now, two mathematicians have brought cold, hard math to bear on the debate.

“It’s time to bring a scientific framework to this problem,” said Dominik Wodarz, the lead author of a new paper published in the journal PLOS ONE. “Can we design a rational way to argue about guns?”

Wodarz is a mathematical biologist at the University of California at Irvine. He and his wife, Natalia Komarova, also a mathematician at UC Irvine, looked at gun control and gun death data from the past 100 years. They then developed a set of equations meant to surface effective gun control policies.

“This debate cannot be settled satisfactorily by verbal arguments alone, since these are often driven by opinion and lack a solid scientific backing,” wrote Wodarz. “What is under debate is essentially an epidemiological problem: How do different gun control strategies affect the rate at which people become killed by attackers, and how can this rate be minimized?”

The couple found that for common domestic and one-on-one gun crimes, reducing the availability of legal firearms is likely to lower death rates – as long as laws are properly enforced. For mass shootings, the results showed that armed citizens could help reduce the number of deaths – but only if trained to avoid shooting bystanders.

The study’s authors were quick to point out that parts of their equations would benefit from better data. For example, data is weak on how many offenders illegally possess guns or how to quantify how protected people who own legal firearms actually are.

“If the current discussion could be steered toward science, rather than having a heated debate without much of a logical foundation, a big step forward toward saving lives would be achieved,” wrote Wodarz.